where the writers are
"Promises To Keep" And Reading

When I applied to graduate school at the University of Toronto, I had to translate my Hebrew transcript into English. My B.A. was in Comparative Literature, but even courses like Elizabethan Drama or 19th century American Literature were taught in Hebrew. All the texts we read were translations.

My English transcript did not reveal this, of course, and I didn't tell anyone (and no one thought to ask). But all of a sudden I had to read Shakespeare and long Victorian novels in English. It was quite a shock, and my English had to improve fast. The hardest challenge was mastering the Master, and to that end I spent hours at the public library listening to records of Shakespeare's plays while following along with the texts.

I loved studying Shakespeare in this method, and even today I enjoy  performances of his plays more if I get to prepare beforehand. Still, it never occurred to me that I could listen to other forms of literature in the same way. But one day, back in 1989 as I was driving and listening to the radio, I heard an installemt of the novel Promises to Keep on "The Radio Reader" (NPR). This book by George Bernau tells an engaging alternate story of how the course of history would have changed if President Kennedy had survived the shooting in Dallas. Its distinct angle is not dissimilar to Philip Roth's The Plot Aganist America written some fifteen years later. 

Since then, listening to audio books has become my favorite pastime while driving. I feel they add life to the written text, and ignite the imagination. Still  it seems like a slightly lazy activity to be read to, and it feels somewhat unfair to the author who worked so hard on writing their text. An actor who reads a book adds his/her own emphasis which could be different than mine. So as I regard listening to be inferior to reading, I decided on certain rules. First I only listen to books in English, second they have to be the kind which otherwise I won’t have the patience to read, like rereading the classics, and third, only unabridged novels are permitted.  The latter rule resulted of being lost in an abridged version of Bleak House. Unfortunately, I still had trouble keeping up even with the unabridged version.   

Unlike my technique for studying Shakespeare which combined listening and reading, it is hard to pay full attention to a novel while driving. In the case of Promises to Keep,  I never got to actually see the book or read it, thus the source and the meaning of its title escaped my attention.

But today I finally had a chance to make amends. I watched a documentary about President Kennedy’s  last day in Dallas and suddenly heard the line from Robert Frost 's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”  which is the reference to Bernau's title:  "But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep."  The title was aptly chosen since President Kennedy, who admired Robert Frost and asked him to read at his inauguration in 1961, used  those particular lines in his campaign to show his commitment to his promises and to serving the people.  


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost


 Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.


My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.


He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.


The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.


Don't get me wrong, I adore audio books, but after today I have yet another proof that, especially in the case of a second language, they can never fully replace "real" reading.




6 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Interesting to hear your

Interesting to hear your attitude towards audiobooks.  Personally, I love listening to a good actor's voice reading.  We have some wonderful readings of novels and poetry on BBC Radio 3 and 4.  

Also, my auditory memory is disproportionately better than my visual one, so I find I remember what I hear far better than what I read.  I passed my university exams strictly from what I could remember hearing during lectures.  Otherwise, revision was a painful, frustrating experience of staring at the same page of a book for hours on end.

I love reading – but I find it difficult to remember much of what I read.

Comment Bubble Tip

Dear Katia, like you I adore

Dear Katia, like you I adore audio books,but in a way it is like playing music without the score--we don't get the whole picture. I feel that listening to audio books is at its best when it is accompanied, at some point, with the book itself. I also love to listening the readings on BBC:-)  Thank you so much for writing and commenting.  

Comment Bubble Tip

A wonderful post, Orna.  I

A wonderful post, Orna.  I feel exactly the same way about Shakespeare's plays, and every play, in fact, They always make so much more sense to me when I see them come to life—performance is the missing magical element.

Recently, I discovered the same was true for a piece of ballet music: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I've listened to many recordings of the piece, heard it live, studied the score in detail, loved parts of it, but, as a whole, it never really made sense to me. And then I saw the Joffrey's production of this ballet, faithfully recreated with the original choreography, sets, and costumes, and the music suddenly made perfect, beautiful sense.  As I said, the missing magical element.

And speaking of magic, here is a link to the poet himself, Robert Frost, reading "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".  Enjoy!


Comment Bubble Tip

Dear Barbara, thank so much

Dear Barbara, thank so much for writing and for mentioning music and ballet. It clarifies why so many musicians love this form of art. Could you please send again the link to Frost's reading? Somehow it didn׳t arrive with the comment. I am really curious to read how do you feel about audio books as a writer and a musician?

Comment Bubble Tip

So sorry about that, Orna!

So sorry about that, Orna! Here's the link to Frost's reading:


Regarding audio books, it's ironic: as much as I love the sound of the written word, I prefer fiction and non-fiction on the printed page—and then, specifically, the printed page of a hard copy. For me, turning aside a book cover is the same as entering another world. There is an intimacy with the material that comes from hearing it in my own head, which facilitates my understanding of it, that isn't there when it comes to me via someone else's voice—an essential part of the connection is missing.  Perhaps this is a result of musical training, where we learn to hear what is on the printed page before we ever play it, or hear musicians perform it, I don't know.

But, in a kind of double irony, when I write fiction, I always read it aloud as I'm creating and revising. Perhaps it's my inclination to add an element of performance to my work, or perhaps it's my way of making the work real for myself...or both.

Now, you've really got me thinking...! :-)

Many thanks!


Comment Bubble Tip

Thank you dear Barbara for

Thank you dear Barbara for the link. It is  really special to hear and see Frost read. It is so sad that the young president didn't get to keep his promises.

About reading aloud my girls loved it when I read to them in Hebrew when they were little. These days  I  read  with a young girl who won't do it on her own but she still enjoys reading together. In earlier times when women used to sit and do their crafts someone often would be reading to them to entertain them while working. I feel that in a way this great tradition was replaced by audio books. Unlike real reading which is all consuming it allows the listener to do other things as well while listening. 

Perhaps because you are a musican you are even more sensitive to the interpretation, even interference, of the reader as you need  silence to be able to enter that "another world"? It is really interesting to think about this. 

Thank you so much for writing and for being a friend.